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Harden's late surge pushes Rockets past Wolves

The SportsXchange

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Houston Rockets know they won't always be able to outscore and outrun the opposition the way they have throughout much of December. On Wednesday night, the Rockets had to execute their half-court offense, scratch for every basket and make key plays with the game on the line.

James Harden made sure that happened in Houston's 87-84 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"We stuck with it for four quarters," Harden said. "Every game we're not going to score the ball, we're not going to make shots every single game. In different games, you have to grind it out and try to force a win."

Harden led all scorers with 30 points, his ninth 30-point game of the season. However, it was how and when Harden got his points that proved so important.

With just more than six minutes to play on a night when Minnesota controlled the tempo throughout, Houston trailed 76-70. That's when Harden took over.

Harden made five of seven field-goal attempts down the stretch, scored 15 of Houston's final 17 points and made pretty much every key offensive play in the final minutes.

Houston called pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll for Harden, and he repeatedly delivered. No matter how many times Harden curled around a screen and drove to the basket, Minnesota didn't have an answer.

"He stayed aggressive, you've got to give him credit, and we couldn't stop him in the pick-and-roll," said J.J. Barea, who led Minnesota with 18 points. "He did a great job splitting us and getting to the rim. Any time you let a guy get to the rim that often, it's not going to be a good night."

Rockets coach Kevin McHale described Harden's play down the stretch pretty simply.

"When he's playing downhill on you, he's just a monster at that," McHale said. "He's coming at you. It's just so hard to defend. He's got the side step, Euro step, driving into you. He's so doggone strong. He's really got strong hands. He mauls the ball through your armpit and finds a way to finish.

"His last couple of hoops were just hard drives that were fantastic."

Those baskets put the game away.

Minnesota led 84-83 after Andrei Kirilenko scored with 1:54 to play. The Timberwolves subsequently missed two 3-point attempts, and Harden made Minnesota pay. His drive to the basket with 39 seconds left gave Houston the lead for good, 85-84. He followed up a Barea turnover by driving to the basket for a finger-roll layup with 11.7 seconds to play.

"He is tough," Minnesota coach Rick Adelman said. "He finishes, he gets to the basket, and he is a very good player."

The victory was Houston's fifth in a row and sixth in seven games. It also allowed the Rockets (16-12) to win both halves of a road-road back-to-back, as they beat the Bulls in Chicago on Christmas. Houston, which won only four of its first 11 games this season, is now four games over .500 for the first time this season.

"I think we're playing better," Harden said. "It's tough, especially our young group. We knew it was going to be tough. Guys stuck with it for four quarters. That shows our maturity. We're growing and getting better."

Minnesota (13-13) lost for the fourth time in five games.

Chandler Parsons added 12 points for the Rockets, and Delfino finished with 11. Houston center Omer Asik contributed nine points and 17 rebounds.

While Harden was making plays down the stretch, his U.S. Olympic teammate Kevin Love struggled. The Timberwolves forward went 3-for-14 from the floor, missed all seven of his 3-point attempts and didn't score in any of the final three quarters. He wound up with seven points and 12 rebounds.

Minnesota's Alexey Shved scored 16 points.

NOTES: Parsons was back in the starting lineup one night after colliding with Chicago's Marco Belinelli and having his right knee swell up on him. Parsons' status was up in the air until he tested his knee before the game. ... Minnesota got good news before the game on two of its injured players. Love returned to the lineup after missing Sunday's loss at the Knicks because of an eye injury. In addition, guard Ricky Rubio was cleared to have his playing time increase. After being limited to 18 minutes per game in his first five games back from ACL surgery, Rubio was cleared to play more than 20 minutes against the Rockets. He wound up with eight points and two assists in 21 minutes.... Wednesday's game was Houston's first at Minnesota since drafting Minneapolis native Royce White with the 16th pick in the 2012 Draft. White is dealing with anxiety issues, and he has not played this season. McHale isn't sure when he may return. "He hasn't been around, I haven't seen him," McHale said. "As crazy as it sounds, you're just kind of going with the guys who are there."

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